A Railwayman's War - Chapter 14
The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system
By Derek Welch
Just before Christmas nineteen forty five, Ray and Betty, along with their son, moved out of their one room, and into a three bedroomed house. Although it was only round the corner, it was a vast improvement. The house had been occupied for some years by an old man, who had lived alone. The massive garden was almost a jungle, and the place had to be decorated from top to bottom. Once the place had been cleaned, it rapidly turned into a home.
The end of the war came and went, largely unnoticed by the railway, and life settled into the same old rut that it had been in before. But when the promised ‘homes fit for heroes’ did not materialize, and unemployment rose when the war machine ground to a halt, the working man rebelled. At the general election that closely followed the outbreak of peace, the Labour party won with a landslide majority. The welfare state was set up, as was the national health service. Key industries were nationalized ‘to keep them out of the hands of profiteers’. The coal mines were one of the first, and on January the first, nineteen forty eight, the public found themselves the proud owners of an asset-stripped, run-down, viciously under-funded, mobile scrap yard. This was named ‘BRITISH RAILWAYS’.
At first, the mess room talk was of expected injections of much needed cash. It was thought that wages would rise and that conditions, in general, would improve. All that the railwaymen actually got was a new cap badge and a new logo on the engines. The rolling stock and track fell further into disrepair. The only work done was essential safety work. It was not at all unusual for the rotten sleepers in sidings to give way. The rails would spread, and the trucks would de-rail.
The men stayed confident that SOMETHING would happen to change things for the better. It never did. It is probably fair to say that nationalization did not seem to benefit anyone. Indeed, it made bad situations worse.
Before, climbing the ladder had been hard enough, the rules made it virtually impossible for an ordinary man to rise above a certain level. For instance, a porter could, if he were very lucky, graduate to signalman and then to station master. With extreme luck, he may even make it to superintendent. Most didn’t. A footplate worker could rise from cleaner, passed cleaner, fireman, passed fireman, driver, through to shed foreman. Again, most didn’t.
There was an almost impassable barrier between passed fireman and driver. To be considered for a driver’s job, a fireman first had to pass his driving test. Next, he would have to accrue six hundred and twenty six driving shifts to get a rise. Without this rate, he could not even apply for the job. This amount of trips is equal to TWO YEARS of driving. That is EVERY day. The most trips that could be reasonably expected was about fifty or sixty a year.
Driving jobs were posted on the notice board. The notice would read ‘one driver wanted at Bedford’ or ‘three drivers wanted at Kentish Town’. Nobody wanted to work at Kentish Town because the men were a funny lot, and anyway, since there was a chronic shortage of decent housing in London, nobody wanted to live there either.
So, after perhaps ten years of patient standing-in for illness and absence, a fireman would, at last, reach the magic number. He would then find out about the next hurdle. A driving job was ALWAYS given to the applicant with the longest service, never to the man who was best qualified by aptitude. Certificates of qualifications were never issued for anything. The man’s foreman knew about it, that was deemed good enough.
The smaller, provincial locos were favourite retirement areas for men from anywhere in the region. Time and again, the hopeful fireman would find out that he had been unsuccessful in his application when the foreman told him, “You’ll be firing the six twenty tomorrow. The new driver starts Monday.” Then he would be ‘back on the shovel’ until the next time.
Many men from Kentish Town and Cricklewood bought houses in St Albans. After two years or so they would retire. This caused great unrest among passed firemen. After nationalization, the situation worsened. Because the railways were now one, and not split into many companies, a man from literally anywhere in the UK could apply for a job of the same grade as his own, anywhere in the country that he desired. Local passed firemen stood no chance whatsoever of bettering themselves. Add to all this the fact that filling in on a driving job actually cost the fireman money, and the unrest is not hard to understand.
A fireman got an extra one shilling (five pence, new money) a day when he was driving. Ray found that a driving job always seemed to interrupt a good run of overtime, so he would lose money. Some jobs required him to finish his ordinary job in the wee small hours and start driving again just before noon. This would mean that he started work too early for lunch, and finished too late for the evening meal.
Sometimes, Ray would finish too late even to go back onto his normal job. At times like these he would have to do shed work, which involved preparing engines and putting them away. It would also cost him even more money.
But always dangling before firemen like Ray was the carrot of SOMEDAY becoming a driver. Then, they thought, they would earn “REAL” money. For some, the dream faded. For others, the dream just became lost in the mists of time, and they meandered through their working lives, going with the flow. In time, most forgot the grandiose plans of their youth and became firmly stuck in their own rut.
That such a job should carry strict codes of dress seems now to be incongruous. Ray related an anecdote that illustrates this point.
Just after nationalization, Ray and his driver were running into Harpenden. It was the wee small hours of the morning and still dark. Although dry, the night was very windy.
The driver called Ray over to his side of the engine. “Ray, can you see that signal light? Is it off or on?”
Ray went over to the driver’s side. His side of the engine had been in the lee of the wind, the side he was on now was blustery. Ray checked the signal for the driver, who had needed glasses for years but wouldn’t risk his job by admitting it. He popped his head out of the side window. The signal was off, and he said as much. As Ray brought his head back in, a gust whipped off his hat.
“Oh x*@Zq!” said Ray, “I’ve lost my hat!”
The driver just looked at him and laughed. The hat had been a particularly good fit, with one of the new red enamel ‘British Railways’ badges instead of the old brass ‘L.M.S.’ ones. Ray put it down to experience and continued the shift.
A few days later, Ray was shunting Harpenden sidings when he remembered his hat. He left the driver during a lull, and walked to the station. He went up to the first porter he saw and asked if the platelayers had handed it in.
“Come with me,” the porter replied, and led Ray to the porter’s room. Inside, the porter opened a locker and said, “Take your pick, mate.”
The locker contained at least a dozen hats. Ray tried them all on. Some made him look like Stan Laurel, some like Oliver Hardy. None fitted.
Ray now had to apply to the St Albans shed foreman for a new one. If an inspector saw him without his hat, he would be gruffly challenged, ‘Where’s your cap?’ and would be expected to instantly put it on.
The code was strict: when around the public, employees would be expected to present themselves in a smart manner. Indeed, Ray only ever met one man who had had a beard. He was from Kentish Town, and had been subjected to all sorts of pressures to remove the offending hair but refused, saying, “It’s not in the rule book, so it stays.”
Ray duly received his new cap, but it was entered on his record card. This was a card that was made out the day that an employee started working for the railway. Every year, on the anniversary of his starting date, a worker would qualify for his annual clothing issue. This consisted of: two sets of bib and brace overalls, two overall jackets. Every three years, one black serge jacket (similar to a donkey jacket), every five years, one heavy black overcoat. AND THAT WAS YOUR LOT.
The weather had been particularly cold. Ray decided that the time had come to christen his new overcoat. He had had it for quite a time and the occasion had not arisen that would merit its maiden outing. He looked among the coats hung in the entrance hall. No coat. He looked in the large pantry cupboard beneath the stairs. No coat. He looked in the wardrobes upstairs. No coat.
“Where’s my works overcoat?” he asked his wife. “You know, the black one.”
His wife, Betty, looked at him. “You never wear it. What do you want it for?” was her reply.
“It’s cold enough this morning, I thought I would,” explained Ray.
Betty told Ray where his coat was. “I’ve given it away. A gypsy came to the door – he was asking for old clothes. He looked so cold that I gave him your coat. You never wear it.”
History does not record Ray’s reply…..
Overalls were rarely the right size. Ray remembers when his very first set were issued. He had been measured by the deputy shed foreman, who was a much better foreman than he was a tailor, and in due course the garments arrived. Ray was called in and presented with the kit.
That was his first encounter with one of the railway’s biggest problems. The sleeves were a fetching three quarter length, and the trousers were longer than shorts, but only just.
“I can’t wear these. They’re far too small. I look like I’ve escaped from somewhere,” Ray commented.
They had to be re- ordered in a larger size. The railway considered that the usual way of sizing garments was too complex and came up with their own method. This consisted of about ten standardised sizes, numbered, imaginatively enough, from one to ten. So out went things like chest and inside leg, and in came sizes guaranteed to fit everyone. Everyone that is, except railway workers.
The problems did not finish there, however. The garments were made of material that, although hard wearing, shrunk like mad. It was commonplace to see men with the bottom eight inches of their trouser legs made from a different shade of cloth, the legs having shrunk so much that only grafting the lower sections of an old pair made the overalls wearable once more.
Also, in winter, the cold air outside, and the warm, moist air inside the engine’s cab, would cause massive quantities of condensation to form. Most of this dripped onto the crew’s overalls, staining them with brown rust that was almost impossible to wash out.
Another common sight was large patches on the seat of most men. There were two reasons for this. One, the roughness of the engine seats wore the cloth rapidly. These seats were often broken – a large crack would appear across the middle. When the engine went over a bump, the crack would open and close, pinching the driver’s bum. It has been said that this was the real reason that drivers sat on one cheek and looked out of the window so much.
The second reason was not so obvious. The fire in an engine’s fire box was not only hot, but fierce. The constant bending and shovelling exposed the crew’s bottoms to the full heat of the fire. The seat of their overalls would scorch, and one wash day, would fall to pieces.
A whole ethos grew around the patches. Patches always had been a sign of poverty. To remove this stigma from their own minds, the neatness of the stitching took on an air, almost, of social standing.
“Who did that for you, mate?” was the question. And a very proud reply of “Oh, I did it myself” brought admiration. Both Ray and his father, Arthur, patched their own overalls, as neither wife felt able to rise to this exacting challenge.